Sunday, April 20, 2014
I recently met a young theatre artist, 10-12 years my junior, who was all wide eyed, determined, talented, and naive. This person had a pure heart, clear head, overly punctual... We'll call this person X.
X wants to make great, important theatre - one of those people who truly mean it and knows what important theatre is. I am terrified for X. As we parted, I did everything I could to convince X to do something else - Anything else. LEAVE THE THEATRE! I knew X WOULDN'T - it's in X's blood and soul. Yet, I had to for both our sake. I didn't want a guilty conscience and I wanted X to know HOW hard it is AND will be. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can.
The theatre will crush X and breaks X's huge heart at times. I will be there to support this person at those times, but it was the first time I've been in this situation. I've had many mentors and I wondered why none of them have ever tried to discourage me. Granted, they likely knew it would have been a waste of time, but I am amazed they didn't warn me. They had to have known - but maybe they felt naivete is what I needed to get my grounding? I knew it would be difficult. Still, I feel slightly mislead by not being forewarned as to the continual difficulty.
I recently asked an octogenarian mentor if it gets easier with experience - I was told no. "You don't worry as much as you LEARN it's going to always be difficult". - WHY DIDN'T YOU WARN ME YEARS AGO??!!
1. It's gonna be tough(er than you think)
2. If it seems to get much easier, something is likely wrong. (If you are coasting, you're sliding downhill.)
3. Accept these silly ideas, and fight on.
4. The greats have the same problems you have.
Posted by Lefty Costello at 9:56 PM
Thursday, April 17, 2014
The 90 Minute or Less Commitment -
Like a free ticket, the 90 minute or less show has become the new safety on the theatrical gun. If you want to play it safe - keep the show short! As flawed as a show may be - if it's less than 90 minutes, audiences excuse it to some point. PLUS it doesn't allow for an intermission. In the days of blogs, (ahem, where any asshole can post their thoughts) it prevents people from posting the ever dreaded and ever so snobby statement, "LEFT AT INTERMISSION" feedback! Therefore, the 90 min or less, intermission-less play has become the norm for playwrights and directors. It's time for a revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway, and I can picture it running for years, if the director can just cut it to 85 minutes. So what for sacrificing the story? "The play is overwritten and YOU MUST UNDERSTAND, people don't have the attention span they used to." (Hell, TedTalksBroadway is encouraging people to bring their ipads to the theatre to help pass the time!)
So what is this post about? Storytelling. Contrary to what is taught- it's not a magic formula about moving set parts multiplied by running time - (I've worked with directors whose main concern is getting the show in at exactly 85 minutes - no intermission - at the sacrifice of the story.) Not only are you not trusting the play by doing this, you're underestimating the audience. IF you have a good story, and can tell it effectively, people WILL sit for hrs. I understand the reasoning, it mainly comes out of fear and mistaking quantity (of audience members) for quality. No one wants to put on a flop - And yes, you likely will get more asses in seats if they know it's a 90 minute investment versus a 3 hr one. While you should know your audience, as an artist, you should always be challenging them and yourself. If you take on a 3 hr play, then take it on!
STRIVE to create a unique experience- one that people cannot have without the connection to other people - talented, giving people. We all need to AIM HIGHER. Know your audience, but don't pander to the lowest common denominator. Lift them up. Raise the bar and their expectations. Give them reason to stay, and they will thank you.
Posted by Lefty Costello at 9:44 PM
Friday, April 11, 2014
Lions can be both kings or hoop jumpers. So can actors, except unlike lions, actors willing become trained show pieces. Why? I think it’s because it is the acceptable taught method to becoming a working actor. “Take lots of classes, take every job you can get – no matter how demeaning or awful as it will lead to bigger things. And, ‘Always take extra work – I knew a friend who knew someone in 1947 who got a lead role from being an extra.’ I’m not opposed to paying your dues, but get smart about it.
Picture yourself a lion. Now think to yourself, “If I just join this circus for a few years, I’ll be something great.” Apply that to your acting career. You become a trained puppet. All your instinct is taken away in order to make you easy to maneuver. In other words, taming you. Soon, you become adjusted to this and don’t even realize it’s happening. When you’re old, you’ll be set to wilt in some zoo cage. What meaning has your life had? Sure, you may be the third head lion jumping through flaming hoops in Ringling Brothers circus, and people applaud you – but is that what you want? If so, then go for it! No judgment. Otherwise, follow your animal instincts and forage your own path.
Take every book on How to Make it in the Business – and burn it. They are all shit.
IF you have talent and drive, there are no rules. Don’t buy in to the circus. Actors, directors, etc. should first and foremost be artists. There are no rules in art. If you need a chapter in a book on how to staple your headshot – screw it. No one with any brains will turn you down because your staples were the wrong way (As if there is a MLA rule for stapling!) This is a waste of your time and money. Work! Be good! Then be better! Don’t take anything crap work though, unless you truly need it to pay the bills. And most of these things you are being offered don’t pay. Seek meaningful, fulfilling work. Be a third spear carrier in something great as opposed to some crap student film. You will learn so much more. Wealth and fame may never come, but you will be nourished much more than if you follow any self-help guide or Backstage’s ‘10 Definite Rules to a Hit Career’.
Again, seek meaningful, quality work, and your chances of making it big and making a difference will be 100 times greater than if you took on every job thrown your way. Those that matter most are the groundbreakers, not the recipe followers.
If you do quality work, people will soon be asking you, "HOW DID YOU MAKE IT?"
1. Study (And always question everything)
2. Be good
3. Be kind
4. Be brave
(Now burn these rules and make your own.)
Posted by Lefty Costello at 11:34 PM
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
A friend of mine who was on tour with a successful road company of a Broadway musical came up with a play reading night each week. For the record, most of the cast were early twenties – old enough to vote and go to war. One week, they read Our Town. No one in the cast had even HEARD of it. Recently another slightly older friend told me about a class of actors he visited where no one knew who Tennessee Williams was. I’d find this last statement to be unbelievable until an early/mid-career colleague (ie. Someone who should clearly know better) divulged to me he only knew 2 Tennessee Williams’ plays.
What hubris most people bring to the theatre – even those proclaiming to love it. An expensive degree from a theatre school is no alternative to knowing your past. Schools are meant to teach you to get jobs – like actors, they teach painters how to paint pretty landscapes that sell. They teach you your ‘type.’ While it’s important to know what you do, you’re selling the cover not the book… but that’s a whole other post.
The theatre didn’t start with Neil Labute or Sarah Ruhl, thank God, it’s been around for a bit of time. ALL theatre artists need to know what came before them. When we think of theatre history, we think of dusty stuff and dates – those aren’t important. What is important is knowing your roots. Our theatrical roots run deep, and like all roots, it takes some work to see them, but it will keep you grounded and feeling less like tumbleweed. You are part of a divine lineage if you choose to be. You’re the new growth on the giant redwood, but you can’t be that unless you become part of your theatrical legacy. (Yes, lots of saps, pardon the pun, have read everything and can therefore claim to be a part of the tree, without talent and action, those are the limbs that get broken off in the first snow storm.)
Find how most every modern American playwright was influenced by Williams, and then trace that back to his influence by Odets, and Odets influence by Lawson, and Lawsons influence by the Greeks, and… It will not only help you understand the play you are working on, it will give you a sense of place. You’re not a lab rat running from audition to audition, you’re an artist carrying on a huge tradition. If you are a writer, there is nothing more valuable than learning from your ancestors. See their innovations, see their mistakes, and carry their intent forward.
Reading great plays of the past and theatrical autobiographies will often leave you exhilarated and depressed. Just like you, they dealt with the same problems. If Maureen Stapleton faced the same headaches I do, what chance do I have? Yet she did it, made huge triumphs and lived to tell about it. Her biography is her roadmap. Use it as a guide for what it is worth to you. Many of our great theatre people, like many great artists, never knew their impact. Van Gogh sold one painting in his life, yet he knew his greater mission and studied and researched and turned out 800+ works in spite of his non-existence audience reception. As artists, be ahead of your time, not wallowing in it.
Redwood trees die, and slowly rot and fade away. Yet, long after their death, they can still cast big shadows. When they finally topple, they became fertilizer for the future. Be a redwood, not a tumbleweed.
Posted by Lefty Costello at 2:35 AM